Mark Twain died one hundred years ago today
“The Old Oolitic Silurian” – my father used to periodically quote this to me to illustrate his familiarity with geological terminology and to remind me of the connections between his own field, American Literature, and my own. Twain was one of my Dad’s favourite writers, and he worked extensively on Twain’s reception in Europe (enthusiastic – Charles Darwin, for example, was a great fan), and his relationships with his English publishers. This led me to appreciate how often, amongst his prolific and highly entertaining observations, Twain wrote about geology – and yes, sand. My Dad’s quotation comes from Life on the Mississippi and ends with one his classic comments:
In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
Twain seemed to have a particular fondness for the Old Red Sandstone, the gigantic piles of sand and other sediments that poured off the growing mountain chains of Europe and North America 400 million years ago. These are the rocks that contain the testaments to the remarkable evolution of fishes and the first footprints of life on the land. Twain wrote the following, in his 1903 essay “Was the World Made for Man?”:
So the Old Silurian seas were opened up to breed the fish in, and at the same time the great work of building Old Red Sandstone mountains eighty thousand feet high to cold-storage their fossils in was begun. This latter was quite indispensable, for there would be no end of failures again, no end of extinctions—millions of them—and it would be cheaper and less trouble to can them in the rocks than to keep tally of them in a book.
Elsewhere, he wrote of “that poor, decrepit, bald-headed, played-out, antediluvian Old Red Sandstone formation which they call the Smithsonian Institute.”
Unfortunately, here Twain got his geology wrong – the original Smithsonian building was constructed from the New Red Sandstone, the sediments that filled the rift valleys as Europe and North America began drifting apart 200 million years ago.
Twain also wrote of desert sandstorms and the commercial possibilities of sand. In Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom, Huck Finn, and Jim take off on a Jules Verne–like voyage in “the boat,” a science-fiction hot air balloon. Sailing over the Sahara, they watch a camel caravan plodding over the dunes below them:
Pretty soon we see something coming that stood up like an amazing wide wall, and reached from the Desert up into the sky and hid the sun, and it was coming like the nation, too. Then a little faint breeze struck us, and then it come harder, and grains of sand begun to sift against our faces and sting like fire, and Tom sung out:
“It’s a sand-storm—turn your backs to it!”
We done it; and in another minute it was blowing a gale, and the sand beat against us by the shovelful, and the air was so thick with it we couldn’t see a thing. In five minutes the boat was level full, and we was setting on the lockers buried up to the chin in sand, and only our heads out and could hardly breathe.
Then the storm thinned, and we see that monstrous wall go a-sailing off across the desert, awful to look at, I tell you. We dug ourselves out and looked down, and where the caravan was before there wasn’t anything but just the sand ocean now, and all still and quiet. All them people and camels was smothered and dead and buried—buried under ten foot of sand, we reckoned, and Tom allowed it might be years before the wind uncovered them, and all that time their friends wouldn’t ever know what become of that caravan.
Realizing that “the boat” (apparently defying the laws of physics) contains several tons of “genuwyne sand from the genuwyne desert of the Sahara,” they consider the commercial potential of putting it into vials and selling it back home (presumably to early arenophiles), “because it’s over four million square miles of sand at ten cents a vial.” But the scale of the operation—and that of the duties they would have to pay—leads them to abandon the idea.
When Twain was 17 or 18 years old, he worked as a part-time typesetter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, still the city’s primary newspaper. Still being marooned in Philadelphia, the Inquirer is my daily paper, and it was their article that drew my attention to the centenary of Twain’s death. He wrote to his brother that “Unlike New York, I like this Philadelphia amazingly, and the people in it.” On the whole, I agree with him – but I do love New York. Reading the newspaper article, I came across a comment that leads to me concluding this with a political viewpoint (something that I generally try to avoid on this blog). The article included the following comment:
Twain is a strange figure to hold up as a national hero. No writer ever sang this country so well – but none ever lanced the boils of its hypocrisy with such needlepoint precision, either.
Isn’t that exactly the kind of national hero every country needs, someone who is equally skilled and perceptive at singing its praises and lancing its boils?
[Smithsonian image from http://www.american-architecture.info/USA/USA-Washington/DC-019.htm; header photo of the piles of Old Red Sandstone in Greenland courtesy of Dr. Peter Friend]